Campers find sweet spots in forest
Fee hikes proposed for recreation areas
By Greg Seubert
The summer crowds may have disappeared, but business was still booming at Boot Lake Campground on a recent weekend.
Warmer-than-normal temperatures made it feel more like July than September at this popular national forest campground about six miles south of Townsend in northern Oconto County.
RVs, trailers and tents were set up in more than 20 of the campground’s 34 sites, while several trailers were parked at the adjacent boat landing. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest operates both sites.
Mike Pheifer made the 1 1/2-hour trip from Neenah with his wife, Mona.
“We’ve been coming up here for over 40 years,” he said. “This is pretty much the campground we go to. We just like it because it’s small, the campsites are far apart, the lake is beautiful and the water’s really clean. We’ll come three, four times in September and October.”
Meanwhile, about 50 miles north on State Highway 32, Richard and Pat Gillen of Burlington had Pine Lake Campground all to themselves.
The 12-unit campground, also operated by the CNNF, is on 1,670-acre Pine Lake near Hiles in Forest County. Pine Lake is also the headwaters of the Wolf River, which flows south for more than 200 miles before eventually emptying into the Lake Winnebago System near Oshkosh.
While Pat cooked pancakes in the couple’s tent camper, Richard sat on a picnic table cleaning a bucket of Pine Lake bluegills.
Fishing is one of the reasons he and his wife make the six-hour drive from southern Wisconsin.
“We get the bluegills and the perch that we like and every once in awhile, we’ll get a crappie,” he said. “This is pretty much the only place we go. We keep coming back because we were here 30 years ago with our kids. It’s just a nice little place that we remember.”
While most of the forest’s campgrounds have a steady stream of campers during the summer, others wait until later, according to Hilary Markin, the forest’s public information officer based at the CNNF headquarters in Rhinelander.
“There are a lot of folks that wait to go camping until the fall,” she said. “The bugs are gone, the weather’s usually pretty nice and the fall colors are a huge draw. There are a lot of our campgrounds that are open through November. We shut down water systems as we get nearer to frost and freezing temperatures, but for the most part, our areas are open for folks to enjoy.”
Back to where it started
The Gillens returned to Pine Lake to camp about three years ago.
“It started out with my aunt and uncle,” Pat said. “They came here and my parents had a cottage between Eagle River and Rhinelander, Sugar Camp. That’s how we caught wind of this place. We tried it back in the ‘70s and loved it.”
The campground’s picnic area used to have a swimming beach and boat landing. The boat landing has since been moved to a new location next to the campground.
“Our kids would swim,” Pat said. “The beach was nice, there were no weeds, the sand was nice. There were 10 sites back then and they added two more and a new boat landing.”
Other than that, Richard said the campground hasn’t changed much in 30 years.
“This is the second time this year. We try to get up here for a week at a time. The last time we were up here was in August. We like to get up here in the latter portion of June.”
“We were surprised that no one was here,” Pat said. “Usually, there’s at least three or four of them filled and sometimes, it’s almost full.”
Boot Lake Campground is one of the forest’s most popular recreation areas, but the Pheifers never have a problem getting a site.
“It’s really hard to get a campsite here in the summer,” Pheifer said. “Even to reserve one here is fairly difficult. The water sites that we like are pretty much booked for the summer. After Labor Day, it’s all first-come, first-served. I never reserve one.
“There are only 34 campsites here, so it’s not like there are 500 people down by the lake,” he said. “I came up on Tuesday and there were probably five or six people here. We had plenty of sites to pick from.”
Although the Pheifers and Gillens have several other national forest campgrounds to pick from, they’re happy campers at Boot and Pine lakes.
“We had talked about looking around at some of the other national forest campgrounds, but they’re farther away,” Pheifer said. “We stayed at Boulder (Lake Campground) a couple of times years ago when this one was full. We’d come up and if it was full, we’d go down there. We like this one better.”
“It goes way back to our kids,” Pat said. “That was their life and that’s what they talk about now. One of them is almost 50 and he felt that he had a better childhood than his kids have now with all the electronics and sports. He felt like his life was better as a child coming up here.”
No problem with fee hike
The U.S. Forest Service’s proposal to increase its fees at CNNF recreation areas, including campgrounds, won’t keep the Pheifers and Gillens from staying at their favorite camping spots.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Pheifer said. “It’s still much more reasonable than even the state parks and the private parks. Eighteen dollars a night won’t bother me at all.”
The forest closed 11 of its Wisconsin campgrounds two years ago to cut costs. Nine of those campgrounds remain closed this year.
“Raising fees doesn’t bother me,” Richard said. “Closing this campground would really tick me off.”
“This one in particular we’re so attached to,” Pat said. “It would really break my heart (if the campground closed). We’re just so into the rustic part of camping and nature. This is where we can really relax.
“I understand the funding issue,” she added. “It’s understandable because it takes money to run these places. If this one closed, we’d just have to develop a new heart connection.”
The Gillens used to pay $3 a night to camp at Pine Lake in the 1970s.
“I’d be willing to pay the 12 (dollars), which is required, but we have the Golden Pass (for senior citizens), so we pay half price,” Pat said. “There’s a guy that used to run a store in Hiles that sits over at the boat landing. He said he donates a lot of his time and money to keep this place and the boat landing up. He had a saw and was doing a lot of his own work.”
Besides a $3 nightly increase at most campsites, forest officials are also proposing to increase the cost of an annual pass from $20 to $30.
“We get an annual pass and I wouldn’t have a problem with that, either,” Pheifer said. “Our national forests are beautiful and I’d like to see them stay that way. If it costs a little more to do that, that’s fine with me.”
If Pat had her way, she’d visit Pine Lake as often as possible.
“It was a little freaky out here last night because it was so dark,” she said. “We walked to the boat landing and the stars were out. That’s what we love.”